Friday, November 24, 2006

The Muse by Vikram Karve

(A fiction short story)

What is the best way to kill a lazy hot afternoon in South Mumbai?

You can go window-shopping on Colaba Causeway; enjoy a movie at Eros or Regal; loaf aimlessly around Churchgate, Fountain, Gateway of India or on the Marine Drive; leisurely sip chilled beer at Gaylord, Leopold, Sundance or Mondegar; browse at the Oxford Book Store or in the Mumbai University Library under the Rajabai clock-tower; watch cricket sitting under the shade of a tree at the Oval; visit the Museum; or, if you are an art lover, admire the works of budding artists on display in the numerous art galleries in the Kalaghoda art district.

That’s what I decide to do. At 11 o’clock in the morning I stand at the entrance of the Jehangir Art Gallery at Kalaghoda in Mumbai. I walk into the exhibition hall to my right. The art gallery has just opened and I am the first visitor. Standing all alone in hall, in peaceful silence, surrounded by paintings adorning the pristine white walls, I experience a feeling of soothing tranquility – a serene relaxing calm – and for the first time after many hectic, harried and stressed days, I experience an inner peace and comforting silence within me and, at that moment, I know what it feels like to be in harmony with oneself.

I leisurely look around at the paintings. I see a familiar face in a portrait. An uncanny resemblance to someone I know. The face on the canvas stares back at me. Comprehension strikes like a thunderbolt. It’s me! Yes – it’s me! No doubt about it! Someone has painted my portrait, my own face.

I look at myself. I like what I see. It is a striking painting, crafted to the point of the most eloquent perfection. I am amazed at the painter’s precise attention to detail – my flowing luxuriant black hair, delicate nose, large expressive eyes, even my beauty spot, the tiny mole on my left cheek; the painter has got everything right. Never before have I looked so beautiful; even in a photograph. My face looks so eye-catching that I can’t help admiring myself – like Narcissus.

I look at the title of the painting on a brass tally below – My Lovely Muse. Muse? I’ve never modeled for anyone in my life. Who can it be? Suddenly I notice a wizened old man staring at me. He looks at the painting and then at me, and gives me a knowing smile.

“Excuse me, Sir,” I ask him, “do you know the artist who painted this?”

“I’m the painter,” a gruff voice says behind me. I turn around and look at the man. With his flowing beard, unkempt hair and disheveled appearance he looks like a scruffy scarecrow. Unrecognizable. But the yearning look of frank admiration in his eyes gives him away. No one else has ever looked at me in that way and I know he is still desperately in love with me.

“Do I see the naughty boy I once knew hiding behind that horrible shaggy beard?” I say to him.

“Do I see the bubbly and vivacious girl I once knew hiding inside the beautiful woman standing in front of me?” he responds.

“You look terrible,” I say.

“You look lovely – like a flower in full bloom,” he says.

I feel good. Aditya may be in love with me, but there is no pretence about him. I know the compliment is genuine.

“Come, Anu,” he says taking my arm, “let me show you my work.” And as we walk around he explains the themes, nuances and finer points of each painting.

Here I feel a sense of timelessness – a state of supreme bliss. I wish this were my world; sublime, harmonious, creative. I wish I’d stayed on; not burnt my bridges. Or have I ?

“Let’s eat, I’m hungry,” Aditya interrupts my train of thoughts.

“Khyber?” I ask.

“No. I can’t afford it,” he says.

“I can.”

“The treat’s on me. Let’s go next door to Samovar and have the stuffed parathas you loved once upon a time.”

“I still do,” I say, and soon we sit in Café Samovar enjoying a lazy unhurried lunch relishing delicious stuffed parathas.

“What time do you have to go?”

“I’ll collect the visa from Churchgate at four and then catch the flight at night.”

“Churchgate? I thought the visa office was at Breach Candy!”

“That’s the American visa. It’s already done. The British visa office is at Churchgate.”

“Wow! You are going to England too?”

“Of course. US, UK, Europe, Singapore. Globetrotting. The next few months are going to be really hectic. It’s a huge software development project.”

“Lucky you! It must be so exciting. You must love it!”

“I hate it!”


“It’s unimaginable agony. Sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours doing something I don’t like.”

“You don’t like it? Then why do you do it?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Aditya, do you know what the tragedy of my life is?”

“My biggest misfortune is that I am good at things I don’t like.”

“Don’t tell me!”

“I hated Maths, but was so good at it that I landed up in IIT doing Engineering, and that too Computers.”

“But you’re damn good. A genius at computers. That’s why they are sending abroad aren’t they? The youngest and brightest project manager! You told me that.”

“Being good at work is different from liking it. You know, the thing I despise the most – sitting like a Zombie in front of the monitor for hours, discussing tedious technical mumbo jumbo with nerds I find insufferable. It’s painful, but then I am the best software expert in the company, the IT whiz-kid!”

“Yes. I know. It’s true. It is indeed a great tragedy to be so good at something you hate doing. That’s why I quit practice and am doing my first love – painting. I don’t know how good I am but I certainly love doing it.”

“But you are so good. Must be minting money.”

“Not at all. I told you I couldn’t afford Khyber. Just about make ends meet.”

“I thought artists make a lot of money. The art market is booming.”

“Only the established ones. I’m still struggling.”

“Come on, Aditya. Don’t joke. Tell me, how can you afford to have your exhibition here in Jehangir?”

“There’s a patron. An old lady. She encourages budding artists like me. She’s given me a place for my studio.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes. There are still a few such people left in this world. I present her a painting once in a while,” he pauses and says, “But today I’m going to be lucky. Looks like My Lovely Muse is going to fetch me a good price. Thanks to you!”

“Thanks to me?”

“You are the model.”

“I never modeled for you!”

“You don’t have to. You image is so exquisitely etched in my mind’s eye that I can even paint you in the nude.”

“Stop it!” I say angrily, but inside me I feel a kind of stirring sensation.

“Tell me about yourself, Anu,” Aditya says, changing the subject.

“I told you. About my boring work. And you won’t understand much about software. Spare me the agony. I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“You still paint?”

“No. I stopped long ago. At IIT.”


“No time. Too much study, I guess. And the techie crowd.”

“You should start. You’re good. You’ve got a natural talent.”

“It’s too late. That part of me is dead. Now, it’s work and meeting deadlines. An intellectual sweatshop.”

“Come on Anu; cheer up. Tell me about your love life?”

“The company is taking care of that too! They are trying to get me hooked to some high flier Project Manager in my team.”

“Don’t tell me? What’s his name?”


“Wow! Anu and Anand! Made for each other!”

“You know they set us up as per their convenience, facilitate working together all the time, encourage office romance, and even give us a dating allowance.”

“Dating allowance? Office romance! It’s crazy! But why?”

“Helps reduce attrition, they say; makes people stay on in the company. Nerds understand each other better; can cope better together, at work and at home. That’s what they say. Smart fellows, those guys in HR - they try and team us up as it suits them. They are dangling carrots too – like this trip abroad. They’ve even promised us a posting together to Singapore on a two year contract, if things work out.”

“It’s great!”

“Great? Are you crazy? Just imagine living full-time with a boring number crunching nerd all my life, doing nothing but being buried in software, day in and day out. I shiver at the very thought.”

“Tell me, who would you like to marry?”

“I don’t know.”

“Someone like me?”

“Come on, be serious.”

“I’m serious. We could paint together, do all the creative stuff you always wanted to do. Live a good life.”

‘Let’s go,” I say changing the topic.

“Anu. Remember. If you love flowers, become a gardener. Don’t curb your creativity. A lifetime of having to curb the expression of original thought often culminates in one losing one’s ability to express.”

“I’ve got to go, Aditya. It’s almost four. The visa should be ready by now.”

“Wait. Let me give you a parting gift to remember me by.”

Aditya calls the curator and tells him to gift wrap and pack My Lovely Muse.

“Sir, we’ll get a good price for it. I’ve already got an offer,” the curator says.

“It’s not for sale,” Aditya says, “It’s a gift from an Artist to his Muse.”

I am overcome by emotion at his loving gesture. I look at Aditya. He is really deeply in love with me. Me too. Tears well up in my eyes. My throat chokes. My heart aches. I find myself imprisoned between the two different worlds – Aditya’s and mine.

But soon the rational side of me takes charge, and as we part, Aditya says, “Bye, Anu. Remember. If you can do something well, enjoy doing it and feel proud of doing it, then that’s your perfect métier. There’s no point living a lie. You’ve got to find yourself.”

I hold out my hand. He presses my hand fondly and says, “Start painting. You must always do what you love to do. That’s the highest value use of time – time spent on doing what you want to do.”

“And the lowest?” I ask.

“Doing what you don’t like just because others want you to do it.”

“Or maybe for money!”


I get into a taxi and drive away form his world, my dream-world; into the material world of harsh reality.

In the evening, I sit by the sea, at the southern tip of Marine Drive and watch the glorious spectacle of sunset. As I watch the orange sun being gobbled up the calm blue sea, and crimson petals form in the sky, my mobile phone rings. It’s Anand, my Project Manager, with whom my romance is being contrived, from the airport. “Hey, Anuradha. The flight is at 10, check in begins at 8; make sure you are there on time. Terminal 2A.”

“I’m not coming,” I say.

“What do you mean you’re not coming?” Anand shouts from the other end.

“I mean I’m not coming,” I say calmly.

“Why? What’s wrong? Someone made you a better offer?”

“It’s nothing like that. I’m going back to the world where I really belong,” I say.

“Where are you? How can you ditch us like this at the last moment?” he pleads.

I know this is the defining moment of my life. It’s now or never. I have to burn my bridges now. “I have made my decision, Anand. I am not coming back. I have to discover my true self, do what I want, be happy from the inside. I’m sorry, Anand. I’m sure you’ll find someone else, at work and for yourself. Best of luck!”

I switch off my cell-phone. I look at it. The last of the manacles! Deliberately, I throw the mobile phone into the Arabian Sea.

And then I begin walking towards the place where I know I’ll find Aditya. And I will return to the world where I really belong to be my own Muse!

Copyright 2006 Vikram Karve


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